Ines took a seat on the soft carpet of the long hallway and held back her tears to prove herself as brave as her mother believed her to be. The bloody lines of the multiple scratches on her legs had dried, but she felt cold, and minutes later, she learned she was hungry as well. Holding her shins close to her chest, she pulled down the ragged hem of her dress to better cover her legs, then folded her arms around them, and let her head rest atop of the knees. The racing beats of her heart slowed down to normal rhythm as she thought back to her parents and the fierce attack. Her mother’s powers had surprised her and her father’s composure in a fight where he was outmatched assured her that they would be victorious. They would definitely come back and continue the trip to the sea.
The door of the hallway opened and two servants, a man, and a woman slid in.
“Oh, who’s this little girl?” the man asked squatting before her. Ines lifted her head, staring at him apprehensively.
“She must be some beggar,” the woman said, taken aback by the child’s purple gaze.
They saw the ragged and stained clothes, but they also noticed the high quality of the material, and the seams and decoration were something they’d never seen before.
“Her feet have fresh scars,” the man noticed. “We can’t just chase her out.”
The woman fumbled with her apron for a while, then stooped and whispered, “All right. I’ll mend those scars and give her some bread. But you have to help me. If the supervisor sees us with a beggar here, she’ll get really angry.”
“What if she’s not a beggar, though? She has golden earrings. Little kid, how did you get here? Where are your parents?”
Ines drew her chin to her chest, casting scared stares at the two. “I don’t have parents,” she mumbled. “I have a message for General Waltario.”
The two frowned incredulously, then widened their eyes with surprise. The man turned to the maid. “She’s here for the general. Let’s take good care of her.” He took the child in his arms and hastened to the kitchen.
Soris sprinted to Waltario’s studio, proud of his feat, but also afraid that his father will come after him. With a wide grin on his face, he closed the metal door behind his back, jumped over the few steps and landed on the grey ground of the room.
Pacing up and down, he was anxiously waiting for Waltario. What would the general say about his mischievous strategy? It had been definitely a success. Acting all sweet and nice, he’d managed to ruin the king’s farewell to the mistress. However, as minutes went by and the studio’s chilliness crept on his arms, worry took over. Maybe he’d get punished for hitting the king.
Scary steps trotted towards the studio and the general’s furious voice echoed unintelligibly in the corridor. The boy jumped in place. Waltario must have gotten upset. Soris started trembling. He didn’t have the courage to receive the great general’s scolding. Waltario, usually a calm man, was known to be terrifying when he got angry. The prince opened a cabinet and huddled inside, doing his best to make it look perfectly closed.
The door opened and the Waltario brothers trotted in. “He’s started making decisions based on that woman’s desires,” Waltario said, propping himself by his large, cluttered desk. “This must end right now. Lady Voronchi has gone too far with this. She’s slowly gaining power over the country. It’s like she’s the queen now.”
Little Soris frowned as he heard all these.
Young Waltario patted his older brother on the shoulder. “Still, what can we do? He’s totally bewitched by her.”
Waltario closed his eyes and plunged into deep thought. He said in a low voice, “We must find out who is the messenger, the one who sends and retrieves their letters. The king was the only one who knew that Lady Voronchi will come to visit the palace today. That means they are exchanging secret letters.”
Young Waltario scratched his head. “But I train the messenger pigeons and none of them has been missing.”
“He might not necessarily use a pigeon to communicate with her. Whatever it is, we must find out.”
“And what are you going to do after we find the messenger?”
Waltario opened his eyes, sketching a smile. “You’ll see. Now, let’s get going. Marshall said there’s something we must check out in the woods.”
Behind the cracked open doors of the cabinet, Soris remained quiet, promising himself to be the one who finds the messenger first. After all, he hated Lady Voronchi the most, and he knew all his father’s secret places. Making sure the general had left for good, he darted from the cabinet and went to gather clues. He already had a lead in his mind.
In the royal kitchen, Ines sat at a table, nibbling some biscuits with the help of a glass of milk. She would have eaten a lot more heartily hadn’t the servants been staring at her, exchanging secret comments.
The door opened and the servant who’d first found her rushed in. “I was too late. The general has already left. We’ll have to wait until he comes back.”
“What are we supposed to do then? Keeping her here will only slow us down,” a maid said, seeing a bad omen in the little girl’s eyes.
The servant sighed. “Well, it’s pleasant weather outside. I’ll take her to the courtyard. Maybe she’ll like to play with the other children.”
Some of the maids rolled their eyes over the floor with a grimace, unpleased with this solution. Their kids were playing outside and they didn’t want them to get in touch with the strange girl.
The door opened again and a stout man in a long white apron strode in, followed by a short maid who beamed with excitement. Arms akimbo, the man stopped before the little girl, peered at her from above, then said with a commanding voice, “Well, I am General Waltario. What ya have to tell me?”
The maids muffled their chuckles in their hands, while the small maid gave them a nudge to keep the act. The little girl sipped some milk, watching the man’s round belly covered by stained cotton. Everyone waited in silence, aside from the main who servant thought this was a silly game.
“You’re not General Waltario,” Ines said, laying her glass on the table. The group gave a cry of disappointment.
“She knows the general. It’s no use to pretend,” the servant said, hurrying to take the girl outside. Had she stayed longer, the group’s minds would have set on searching for other sneaky tactics to find out the child’s message to the general.
Out in the courtyard, there weren’t any other children. The maids had made sure to call them back in the palace. The servant patted Ines on the shoulder. “Well, just wait here in the garden. The other kids should be here, too. I’ll come back to you after the general returns, okay?”
Ines nodded, although she didn’t want to be left all alone. As soon as the man departed, she went back immediately to thinking about her mother and father. Last time she’d seen them, they were both injured and fighting dreadful creatures. What if they couldn’t come back for her? Taking a seat on a long bench, she dabbled her feet in the air, mostly to keep herself awake. Now and then, she yawned, and soon it became hard to look at the bright sky. The hedge behind her invited her to rest her back against it.
Just when her eyes were about to close, a group of children came running by. Some were of her age, some were older or younger with a year or so, but they were all dressed in beautiful clothes of bright-colored silk. They were the nobility’s children, and at her sight, four of them approached her with curiosity.
“Hey, who’re you?” a boy asked. “You’re new here.”
She lifted a wary gaze at them, shrinking inside herself. “Who’re you?” she asked to get away from answering.
“I’m Thomas, the son of Boyar Taylor. But, wow, look at those eyes! Are they purple?” he asked, drawing the others’ attention. Pressured by their suffocating curiosity, Ines got off the bench and took a few steps back. Why were they so surprised?
“Oh, she really has purple eyes!” the tallest of them exclaimed, getting the rest of the kids to gather around. As they almost surrounded her, marveling at the color of her eyes, Ines started shaking inside. What if they tried to harm her? She kept a hand close to the pocket where she’d hidden the magical crystal of invisibility.
The chorus of gasps and remarks of admiration got to the ears of Annette, a little girl who, as the daughter of a highly-appreciated boyar, was used to receive everyone’s admiration all the time. When she saw that she was no more the center of attention, she rushed to Ines. “Stand back, everyone!” she demanded, planting herself in front of Ines, frowning with envy at the newcomer.
“Oh, gosh!” she exclaimed, taking a few steps back, and frightening the others. “Guys, don’t be fooled by her looks. She’s a dragon. That’s why she has those eyes, and, oh, look at her feet! She has scars on them! She pretends to be a human to fool us all until she recovers. Stay away from us, you freak!”
Ines stepped back, aghast. The fear became real, her eyes brimming with tears.
“Go away, monster!” another kid screamed, thinking Annette’s idea was fun. As the rest joined the anti-dragon team quickly, Annette pushed Ines into a bush. Before the rest could surround her, Ines got up and started running, tears glistening down her rosy cheeks. She clutched the piece of crystal, thinking of turning invisible, but just then she bumped into someone. Sobbing and wiping tears, she looked up. It was Prince Soris. He’d come to see what the commotion was all about.
“Uh, sorry,” he said, bowing respectfully. Noticing her tears, he smiled. He’d finally found the occasion to prove himself a worthy knight just like the heroes in the stories Teacher Coldpeak had given him to read. He had a damsel to save. “Who’s bothering you?” he asked, buffing his flat chest. Ines rubbed her eyes, sniffing loudly.
He took out a handkerchief out of his pocket and handed it heroically. “Don’t worry, princess. I’m here to save you.” Ines covered her face with the handkerchief, then sheltered behind his back. When the kids gathered around, Soris stood before them.
“Why are you attacking her?” he asked with a dignified voice.
“She’s weird. She has purple eyes,” Annette stated, lifting her chin.
“So what if she has purple eyes?” the prince said, not having noticed that by himself. “She’s a girl just like you. If a person has something that you don’t, it doesn’t mean they’re weird.” He said, gladly citing from his favorite collection of hero stories. “Everyone, return to your place. If you think she’s weird then I don’t, so go away and play with your common friends.”
The group mumbled and grumbled, but listened to his words and went back to their playground. No one dared to confront the prince. Soris turned to Ines, “See, I told you I’ll save you.”
Ines hinted a shy smile. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, err… what’s your name?”
“I don’t have a name,” she uttered, fearing he might become unfriendly just like the rest.
Soris blinked in confusion for a couple of seconds. “Well, then I’ll call you ‘Princess’.” He grinned. “I’m the prince of the Arid Kingdom, Prince Soris Ardensis. Call me Soris. Follow me, Princess. You’re my guest today.” He grabbed her hand and scampered toward the castle.
On their way, as they passed close to the building’s white walls, Soris noticed his mother’s withered appearance on one of the balconies. The companions had advised her to go out and take a breath of fresh air. Soris started jumping and waving until she cast her eyes on him. The queen feigned a smile, waving back at him. The boy pretended to be joyful, although the sorrow in those eyes was hard to ignore. When she returned to a meditative state, Soris let his arms at his sides and hung his head with a sigh. Ines saw everything and pitied the boy.
Dragging his feet, Soris brought her to the garden. Ines watched his sad face that had some resemblance to that of the lady on the balcony. “Was that your mom?” she asked. He nodded, ripping a leaf from the hedge and pretending to play with it.
“Why is she sad?”
The boy let the leaf fall and heaved up on a bench. “Dad is bad. He wants to replace Mom with a crone.”
“She bewitched him. That’s what everybody says. But I want to change that.”
Ines took a seat next to him. “How?”
He looked her straight into the eyes. “Promise not to tell?”
“Okay. I’ll tell you a secret, but you have to tell me one, too.”
Ines nodded. Staring at her purple irises, Soris told her that he must find the messenger.
“I spied Dad a lot and I saw that he often puts something in a bottle before calling a servant to fill back the empty bottles. I think one of the servants is the messenger.”
“I can help you.”
“I have a stone that can make us invisible.” She pulled out the piece of crystal from her pocket.
Soris watched her in mute silence for a couple of seconds, then chuckled. “Hey, those things you read in stories are not real. Nobody can turn invisible.”
“Why? You’ve never heard of the crystal of invisibility?”
Like a wise man, the prince lifted his eyes to the sky. “I heard of Tooth Fairy, ogres and monsters, but those are just stories. When you’ll grow up like I, you’ll understand.”
Ines pouted. “Oh, so you don’t believe me. Fine, I’ll show you.”
As she closed her eyes, readying herself to say the spell, the boy let out a wise sigh.
“Leave it. I believe you. You’re just too little.”
Hearing Clark’s voice, the boy winced. “Oh, no. Let’s hide. If Clark finds me, my mission is over.” He grabbed Ines by the hand and ran to hide behind a hedge. Clark passed by the bench, talking to a friend who looked almost like a twin brother. “The prince hit the king! Oh, mother of the stars, he’s such a trouble-maker. Just as I left him into Waltario’s care, he made another blunder. I swear this is the last day I let him play with the ball.”
The prince tightened his fists. “How dare he…”
Little Ines whispered behind him, “Did you really hit the king?”
The boy turned. “Well, he was bad, too. He never talks to me, and he’s bad to Mommy.”
When Clark left the garden, they went back to the bench.
“So what’s your secret?” the boy asked. “You promised to tell me.”
Ines remembered her mother’s warnings and sighed. She wished she could tell more to the brown-haired boy who’d saved her and was so nice to her. “I have a message for General Waltario,” she said, glad that she found something that was allowed to speak about.
He lifted a brow. “What message?”
“I don’t know. I just have a letter to give him. Mommy said that I should not give it to anybody else.” She bit her lip, regretting that she’d mentioned her mother.
Soris nodded with curiosity. “Oh, I see. Well, I can lead you to the general. He’s my friend.”
“Really?” Ines beamed with gratitude, her clear stare making the prince uncomfortable.
“Yes. I’m the prince after all,” he replied, lifting his chin with fake pride. “As soon as he comes back in the palace, I’ll take you personally to him.”
“Thank you,” she said and chuckled.
The sound of some clinging bottles of glass drew their attention. A man carrying a bottle crate was passing by the garden. Soris jumped on his feet. “That’s the messenger! Quick! Let’s follow him!”
Ines left the bench and went after the prince who was excited to find the proof of the messenger.
Next chapter coming soon! Thank you for your kind support!